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Polling On Patriotism

By Kathy Frankovic, CBS News director of surveys
Are you patriotic? It's almost the Fourth of July, which makes the question worth asking. But it also is one of those poll questions – like did you vote or have you paid your taxes – where saying "no" can be construed as an admission of guilt. Nearly all Americans see themselves as patriotic, but many have some doubts about the rest of the country.

So are Americans patriotic? Absolutely! Last summer, on the eve of the fifth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, 62 percent of Americans in a CBS News/New York Times poll described themselves as "very patriotic." Another 33 percent said they were somewhat patriotic. That left only 5 percent who admitted to anything less.

Threats, wars and crises make the public more willing to "rally round" the President and the country, so it's no surprise that the 9/11 attacks increased the "very patriotic" group. The percentage was as high as 72 percent just after the attacks. In a CBS News/New York Times poll conducted ten years before that, it was 55 percent, significantly lower than in 2001, and lower than in the most recent poll.

Although pretty much everyone claims to be patriotic, there are differences. According to last year's poll, patriotism increases with age, and was higher in the Midwest and South than in the Northeast and West. By self-report, Republicans are more patriotic – last year, 76 percent of them said they were very patriotic, compared with 53 percent of Democrats. Self-described conservatives were 24 points more likely than liberals to describe themselves that way.

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Conservatives were more likely than liberals to see differences in patriotism between the two groups. A quarter of conservatives believed liberals were less patriotic than they themselves were, a percentage nearly four times as large as the percentage of liberals who felt conservatives were less patriotic.

According to the Roper Center iPoll database at the University of Connecticut, pollsters have rarely asked Americans whether specific candidates or individuals were patriotic. But when they do, Republicans have the upper hand. In early 2004, according to a Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll, more Americans said being patriotic applied more to Republican George W. Bush than to Democrat John Kerry. In 1988, more voters thought the current President's father George Bush was very patriotic than thought Democrat Michael Dukakis was. Twenty years ago, in the middle of the Iran-Contra scandal, 73 percent of Americans agreed that Oliver North was a "real patriot."

But there has also been skepticism about politicians using patriotism for political reasons – two-thirds of the public in one long ago poll said most elected officials and candidates who talk about their patriotism do it as a way of winning votes, not because they mean it.

This skepticism extends to the country as a whole. Personally, Americans may feel more patriotic, but more than half think the average American today isn't.

But what does patriotism mean? A long time ago, The New York Times asked Americans what it meant to be patriotic and whether someone had to do anything to be patriotic. Most said a person didn't have to actually do anything – loving one's country was enough. But there are some patriotic acts. More than six in ten adults in 1983 said serving on a jury or serving in the armed forces was a patriotic act – but even more described voting that way! Easy things to do were seen as patriotic by more people than things that took more time and commitment. So while 77 percent said singing the Star-Spangled Banner was a sign of patriotism, only 55 percent said joining the Peace Corps was.

Being patriotic doesn't mean you can't complain. Overwhelming majorities say people who criticize the government or protest against the Iraq war can still be patriotic. People can even complain about taxes (as long as they don't cheat on them). But when it came to voting for a communist there's a different answer: as European communism was failing in 1989, 73 percent told a Parents Magazine-sponsored poll that voting for a communist candidate would be unpatriotic!

Finally, some tactics billed as patriotic may go too far, according to the public. In March 2003, 66 percent of those interviewed in a Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll said that changing the name of French fries to "freedom fries" was a "silly idea," not a "sincere expression of patriotism."

Happy Fourth of July!
By Kathy Frankovic

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